Pundits are pretty sure that Donald Trump has “jumped the shark.” “Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War,” declared The New York Times’ Nate Cohn last weekend. “Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments—a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.”
If Cohn is right, and I certainly hope he is, Trump’s political career will have followed the same basic arc as that of another notorious American demagogue, Joseph McCarthy.
Consider the parallels. First, McCarthy, like Trump, was an opportunist, not a zealot. Although the Wisconsin senator later grew famous hunting communists, communists in the Milwaukee branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations played a key role in his initial Senate victory in 1946. In his first three years in the Senate, McCarthy hunted for an issue on which to make his name. He considered proposing a national pension plan or championing the St. Lawrence Seaway. But by 1950, the U.S.S.R. had tested an atomic weapon, communists had won China’s civil war, and alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury. Midwesterners, long suspicious of the East Coast’s foreign-policy class, and Catholics, bitter over Moscow’s domination of their co-religionists in Eastern Europe, were particularly receptive to claims that Washington elites had sold out America to the U.S.S.R. So in February 1950, McCarthy began loudly exploiting those grievances, famously declaring in Wheeling, West Virginia, that “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [communists] working and shaping policy in the State Department.”